Watch out for our Mark of the Devil special issue coming soon...
The landmark film Mark of the Devil premiered in Europe in 1970. Although the film boasts an incredible cast, including Herbert Lom, Reggie Nalder, Herbert Fux and a young Udo Kier, and was successful enough, both in Europe and the U.S., to reach cult status and spawn a sequel, it faced controversy and censorship from the very start. Critics panned it for its excessive violence and exploitative nature. In 2014, genre film scholar Andreas Ehrenreich proved that the film was more than just a meaningless series of depictions of sex and torture and furthered the consideration of the film from other points of view. With the support of the Department of Theatre, Film and Media Studies of the University of Vienna, he organised a three-day conference in Tamsweg, Austria, a town in the Lungau region, which provided much of the gorgeous scenery for both Mark of the Devil and Mark of the Devil Part II. A group of twenty scholars from universities in continental Europe, Great Britain and the U.S. examined the films from various disciplinary angles, providing context and astute close readings.
While Deniz Bayrak and Sarah Reininghaus smartly analysed the topological system of the two movies, Marcus Stiglegger set them in relation to his concept of transgressive cinema as inspired by Georges Bataille. Julian Petley succinctly traced the history of Mark of the Devil’s censoring in Great Britain. Michael Fuchs engaged with the question of authorship, which is an important point, given that the first film has two directors, one of whom – Austrian actor and 1950s heartthrob Adrian Hoven – also acted as the film’s producer. (Mark of the Devil’s other officially credited director Michael Armstrong, a relative newcomer from the U.K., who had previously made the 1969 proto-slasher The Haunted House of Horror, would go on to write seventies sex comedies such as blockbuster-director-to-be Martin Campbell’s The Sex Thief and Eskimo Nell.) Sarah Held’s presentation, informed by gender studies, investigated the various female characters in Mark of the Devil who range from mere victims to active heroines. The torture endured by one of these characters – the infamous scene where Herbert Fux pulls out a woman’s tongue – provided the basis for Christine Lötscher’s lucid presentation on cultural imaginations of martyrdom. Bálint Kovács and Judit Szabó persuasively interpreted a scene involving a Punch and Judy show within the film as an allegory of the delicate relationship of voyeurism that exploitation films often build with their audiences. In a similar vein, Michael Lück read the film text as a meditation on the ethics of looking, assessing its focus on the revealing of witch marks and scenes depicting public acts of violence.
Going beyond close readings of the films, some of the scholars placed them within diverse film historical lineages and genres. Drehli Robnik playfully examined the acoustic elements of horror movies about witches, encompassing such contributions as Häxan, Suspiria, and The Blair Witch Project. Daniel Illger’s presentation focused, with poetic precision, on the aesthetic experience conveyed by exploitation films, while Arthur Lizie talked about the difficulties of teaching exploitation cinema at U.S. universities. Xavier Mendik, however, made a convincing case for the layered historicity of European exploitation films, demonstrating the ways in which German and Italian genre fare from circa 1970 reacted to and processed acts of left-wing terrorist violence.
Occasional comparisons to other forms of media where drawn as well. Janet S. Robinson looked into affinities and discrepancies between Mark of the Devil and the third, witchploitation-heavy season of current anthology series American Horror Story, whose tongue-in-cheek pseudo-feminism did not measure up well against the film’s robust sense of enlightenment-via-sleaze. While theologian Gianluigi Gugliermetto followed the films’ iconographic appropriations from art history, Ivo Ritzer called attention to the recycling and rewriting of witchploitation in the cover-artwork and lyrics of metal bands.
Other speakers put the focus on the historical background of Mark of the Devil. Peter Klammer, a historian based in the region, elaborated on the witch trials that really took place in the Lungau area, making it a plausible locale for the shooting of the films in the first place. Legal scholar Marlene Peinhopf traced medieval witch trials and their imaginary afterlife back to ancient Roman law and its enduring taxonomy of female troublemakers: strix, venefica, adultera.
Countering any preliminary impression that Mark of the Devil and Mark of the Devil Part II could prove too slim a topic to sustain a conference, the talks and discussions covered an impressive range of related matters – among them: the aesthetics and politics of horror cinema, production and reception cultures of exploitation film, imaginations of state power and female agency across different cultural forms and historical contexts – while never losing sight of the inciting two films, present in precise clip selections and slide shows.
The ambitious accompanying programme of the conference helped enrich the lectures and made for two varied days. On the first two days, both Mark of the Devil and its sequel were shown to the members of the conference as well as to other spectators. The audience turnout for the screenings proved the locals’ enduring remembrance of the films’ shoot in the Lungau region. Both screenings were framed by talks with guest stars: Michael Holm, composer of Mark of the Devil’s catchy, swelling soundtrack and a star of German pop in his own right, proved a charming, game and enlightening interviewee, as did Erika Blanc, the leading lady of Mark of the Devil Part II and Percy Hoven, son of producer/director/actor Adrian Hoven and actor in small roles in both films. (Indeed, in Mark of the Devil Part II Percy Hoven had played the son of Blanc’s heroine, prompting a heart-warming reunion as they met again at the conference for the first time ever since shooting the film.) Beyond this public opportunity and further conversations in the evenings, your trusty correspondent Thomas Hödl was lucky enough to join a private interview that film historian Uwe Huber took with Signora Blanc. For hours, she recounted her work experiences with such genre film luminaries as Antonio Margheriti, Umberto Lenzi, Anthony Steffen, Siegfried Rauch or Gordon Mitchell, generally colored in a very positive light.
Following the public screening of the first film, Martin Nechvatal showed some extremely rare behind-the-scenes footage he had found while researching for his upcoming documentary on Mark of the Devil. The recordings by a local who had worked on the production of both films include some astonishing shots of Hoven directing Udo Kier’s death scene, providing evidence in the contested matter of the first film’s authorship. (Most interviews suggest that he was directing the film for most of the shoot.)
To honor both the shooting of much of the film in the beautiful Lungau area as well as the tragic history of witch trials on which the film is based, Andreas Ehrenreich organized two excursions for the third, final conference day: The first took the participants to a hill near the conference location where suspected ‘witches’ and ‘werewolves’ had been tried and executed in real life. The second led to castle Moosham, which features prominently in both films. Touring the site, the visitors enthusiastically recognized the domicile of Herbert Lom’s witchfinder general from Mark of the Devil – including the impressive balustrade where the final chase took place and the infamous torture chamber. They also found many other locations from the films’ topography inside the walls of castle Moosham, though often seeming on a much smaller scale when compared to their cinematic presentation.
The conference on Mark of the Devil was an extraordinary experience in many senses. Testing the ‘knowledge’ of the exploitation film, its aesthetic richness and depth of cultural allusions on a concrete example paid good dividends throughout. (Additionally, the attendants delighted in a chance to meet cinematic icons like Michael Holm and Erika Blanc in such a relaxed environment.) Last but not least, the lectures proved that there is no need to sanitize or stylize Mark of the Devil into a piece of canon art to make it an engaging subject for investigation. It may be exploitation, and art, precisely as such.